The keynote speaker for the annual reception inspired the PC crowd with his account of a public purpose project that reflects Quaker values.
There was a time, about 10 years ago, when John Somers thought of moving his business out of Buffalo’s East Side to a suburban setting free from poverty, crime and other distress that afflicts many urban neighborhoods in the United States.
But as Somers contemplated moving Harmac Medical Products, a global manufacturer of medical devices, he realized that 25 percent of the employees at his Buffalo facility lived in the same zip code as his plant—the same neighborhood he thought to abandon.
“It wasn’t fair,” Somers realized.
“Instead,” he told the audience at the 2019 Downtown Reception, “we put together a vision to stabilize the neighborhood and transform the east side of Buffalo by providing green space, affordable housing and more job opportunity.”
Somers was the keynote speaker at the annual PC event, invited because his work in Buffalo syncs philosophically with PC’s Strategic Vision to “Educate Students to Live Lives that Make a Difference.” In his introduction, Head of School Darryl J. Ford told the audience of alumni, parents and teachers, “John is doing what we hope for each of our students—he is living a life to make a difference.”
At the Downtown Reception, and during a presentation to students earlier in the day, Somers described how Harmac sparked the neighborhood transformation by buying land and abandoned properties, and by forming partnerships with like-minded people and agencies. Key to the success of the project, Somers said, was professor Hiro Hata and his students at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. They immersed themselves in community feedback, data and ideas, and developed the first phase of a 10-year master plan; their work tied for second place in the 2016 International Making Cities Livable Design Competition.
Somers believes the University of Buffalo’s early emphasis on green space and walkability has been vital to the project’s success. “You get synergy when you let people walk within the area and have natural connections as they take a baby out in a stroller, walk the dog or wait for the bus,” he explained.
One of Harmac’s first projects was to donate a piece of land near the plant to the city for use as two bus shelters. “We have 80 employees who take the bus, and they gave us a standing ovation when we did this,” Somers said. “Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the difference.”
The neighborhood has a new moniker, Bailey Green (Harmac headquarters have been on Bailey Avenue since 1981), and strategic partnerships have borne results:
• Habitat for Humanity, which customarily rehabs houses one at a time, has embraced the idea of rebuilding the neighborhood. It just finished rehabbing its ninth Bailey Green home and plans to build or rehab at least 12 more.
• The city has replaced sidewalks and street lights.
• Groundwork Market Garden is growing organic produce and has purchased a once-abandoned, 40,000-square-foot building next door to its 2.5 acres of farmland for packing, cold storage and youth education.
• Urban Fruits & Veggies plans to break ground this spring for the first of two hydroponic gardens and hopes to raise grant money and donations for a second greenhouse, a community garden, fruit orchard, and wellness center that includes yoga instruction and a small medical practice.
• A carpentry training program is off the ground, successfully preparing new carpenters for employment.
• Buffalo Peacemakers, a group of about 150 community residents focused on violence prevention and gang intervention, expects to move its headquarters to a rehabbed building that Harmac helped rescue from the city’s demolition list.
“If everybody gives a little bit, if during our normal day we step out of our normal circle by one step and help someone plant a tree or paint their house, I think we can set the world on fire,” Somers said.
Harmac contracts with Fortune 500 medical technology companies around the world to manufacture single-use medical devices, including blood separation systems and ophthalmology and wound management products, to name just a few. Harmac also has facilities in Ireland and Mexico, and, just as the company has worked to be good neighbors and employers in Bailey Green, the company is engaged in similar efforts at these other locations. At its Ireland facility, for example, Harmac provides more than a dozen partial college scholarships for children of employees, a fitness center, a free week of summer camp, a community park and onsite dental care. In Mexico, Harmac hosts an annual employee family event; holds regular training sessions to utilize many of the products which they manufacture; sponsors a student-scholar program for employees’ children; and holds an annual Mother’s Day celebration.
“We are committed to improving our employees’ lives,” Somers said. “In fact, we see this as our responsibility. We believe we owe them far more than a paycheck for 40 hours’ worth of work.
“And that’s our vision: to positively change the lives of patients, employees and the communities in which we work.”